Francis Bacon The Essays Summary

Francis Bacon had many accomplishments. He was a scientist, a philosopher, and a politician, and he was adept, too, at taking bribes; for this he had been imprisoned. It is, however, as a literary man that he is perhaps best remembered, a writer so competent with the pen that for decades there have been some persons willing to argue that Bacon wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

The essay form is rare in the modern age, although there are some faint signs of its revival. As Bacon used it, the essay is a carefully fashioned statement, both informative and expressive, by which a person comments on life and manners, on nature and its puzzles. The essay is not designed to win people to a particular cause or to communicate factual matter better put in scientific treatises. Perhaps that is one reason why it is not so popular in an age in which the truth of claims and their practical importance are always questioned.

The Essays first appeared, ten in number, in 1597. They were immediately popular because they were brief, lively, humane, and well-written. Perhaps they were effective in contrast to the rambling, florid prose written by most writers of the time. A considerable part of their charm lay in their civilized tone. In these essays, Bacon reveals himself as an inquisitive but also an appreciative man with wit enough to interest others. The first edition contained the following essays: “Of Studies,” “Of Discourse,” “Of Ceremonies and Respects,” “Of Followers and Friends,” “Of Suitors,” “Of Expense,” “Of Regiment of Health,” “Of Honour and Reputation,” “Of Faction,” and “Of Negociating.”

By 1612, the number of essays had been increased to thirty-eight, the earlier ones having been revised or rewritten. By the last edition, in 1625, the number was fifty-eight. Comparison of the earlier essays with those written later shows not only a critical mind at work but also a man made sadder and wiser, or at least different, by changes in fortune.

The essays concern themselves with such universal concepts as truth, death, love, goodness, friendship, fortune, and praise. They cover such controversial matters as religion, atheism, “the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” custom and education, and usury, and they consider such intriguing matters as envy, cunning, innovations, suspicion, ambition, praise, vainglory, and the vicissitudes of things.

The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, as they are called in the heading of the first essay, begins with an essay on truth entitled “Of Truth.” The title formula is always the same, simply a naming of the matter to be discussed, as, for example, “Of Death,” “Of Unity in Religion,” “Of Adversity,” “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.” One expects a sermon, and one is pleasantly surprised. Bacon uses his theme as a point of departure for a discussion of the charms of lying, trying to fathom the love of lying for its own sake. “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure,” he writes. This pleasure is ill-founded, however; it rests on error resulting from depraved judgment. Bacon reverses himself grandly: “ . . . truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.”

When it comes to death, Bacon begins by admitting that tales of death increase humanity’s natural fear of it, but he reminds the reader that death is not always painful. By references to Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, Vespasian, and others, Bacon shows that, even...

(The entire section is 1535 words.)

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Many of Francis Bacon’s works were based on learning: the mind’s inherent faults hampering it, how we as people make mistakes in learning and effective ways of gathering knowledge. All his works were linked to the critique, advancement and betterment of knowledge and learning in some form or the other. This section will cover the major propositions found in Bacon’s works, namely the idols of the mind, the distempers of learning, classification of knowledge and Baconian induction.

Idols of the Mind

Bacon believed that by virtue of being human, the mind had some inherent faults, which must be corrected if we are to engage in any sort of true and meaningful learning. The word idol is used as derived from the classical Greek term “eidolon” which means phantom or image, just as Bacon believed that the idols of the mind would create false or phantom images of the world and of nature. There are four idols of the mind:

1. Idols of the tribe: The “tribe” referred to here is the tribe encompassing all of humanity. As human beings, we are born with innate faults in the mind. These innate faults are of the tribe, because they come to us at birth, and are common to all humans, not necessarily acquired through exposure to a given set of experiences. These idols include sensory defects, tendencies to make premature decisions, engage in wishful thinking and overthink phenomena, creating more complications and order than actually exists.

2. Idols of the Cave: This set of idols is not common to the “tribe” but rather specific to each individual and the “cave” they live in, which is their mind. Depending on each person’s unique experiences, relationships to the world and to others and their exposure to particular disciplines, they develop these idols resulting as a sum of their life’s experiences. These idols involve a tendency to view things with regard to the discipline we have been trained in, and use this narrow understanding of the world to reduce all phenomena down to their own perception. For example: a philosopher will see all of nature’s phenomena as questionable and will attempt to find purpose.

3. Idols of the Marketplace: The marketplace refers to the communications between men, or as Bacon put “association of men with each other.” The tools that contribute to the existence of these idols are words and language. We either assign abstract terms or give name to things that exist only in our minds. This leads to a faulty and vague understanding. Ironically, words were created so humans could express themselves, but this distemper prevents us from doing so.

4. Idols of the Theatre: This is again a set of idols, which are learnt by us through our respective culture, a practice acquired by humans through socialization and cultural exposure. It refers to the theatricality and sophistry in knowledge, but instead of being true knowledge, it is mere imitations. Therefore, the metaphor of theatre is introduced. Bacon accuses philosophers of engaging in this particular set of idols.

Distempers of Learning:

Bacon originally identified the three distempers of learning as “vanities.” The distempers are simply methods and forms of learning that Bacon believed were ineffective and led to no real advancement. There were three main distempers identified:

1. Fantastical learning (or vain imaginations): Fantastical learning is simply beliefs, ideas and arguments without strong basis in practical and scientific reality. Being a man with a strong belief in the scientific principles of observation and experimentation, Bacon did not believe in what he called “pseudo sciences.” This kind of learning may be found amongst magicians and astrologers in Bacon’s time and amongst religious leaders and fundamentalists today.

2. Contentious learning (or vain altercations): Contentious learning refers to excessive contestation amongst those deeply entrenched in a particular academic discipline, including arduous arguments about the most minute, inconsequential details, which ultimately lead to no fruitful gain. Bacon lashed out at classical philosophers such as Aristotle for engaging in such learning which ultimately benefits no one.

3. Delicate learning (or vain affectations): Bacon named this particular learning as “delicate” because in his opinion, it lacked true academic rigor. The rigor was missing because those engaging in this type of learning merely focused on form and not content, or “style over substance”. Such emphasis leads to beautifully worded prose, which lacks any kind of depth. No new discoveries or recoveries of knowledge are made, and therefore, such learning is delicate and not true and rigorous. Bacon believed that engaging in these three kinds of learning would lead to two main ill effects, namely “prodigal ingenuity” (waste of talent and mental resources) and “sterile results” (no fruitful outcome beneficial to the wider world).

Induction

Induction, as per its definition, is the inference of general from specific instances. Classically, philosophers had a method wherein they would jump to general conclusions after examining only a few specific instances, and then work backwards for a thorough verification processes. Taking an example of clothes. If we conclude that “all clothes bought from stores are clean and without holes” we are immediately skipping over the process of identifying each store, and concluding and confirming that clothes from Forever 21 and H&M and Primark are all clean and without holes. Instead, we just jump to the conclusion. If we set out to verify this fact, and we find one garment in a particular shop that is dirty and has a hole in it, our entire theory and research up to that point become nullified.

Bacon’s approach to induction was rather different. He believed in going from very specific to general, over a rigorous period of research to confirm a hypothesis. Instead of directly drawing a conclusion, a researcher following Bacon’s method would first visit all the shops available, survey the garments and ensure they are clean and without holes, and only then proceed to make a general conclusion like “all clothes bought from stores are clean and without holes.” Bacon’s approach, according to him, is foolproof. This is because it enables the researcher to build “a stable edifice of knowledge”. If one shirt at a particular store does not match the condition, then the survey work done before does not go to waste. Instead, the researcher merely concludes that only store X and Y sell clean and hole free clothing. Therefore, knowledge is stable.

However, there were criticisms to this method, with contemporary thinkers questioning just how much research is needed before making a general conclusion. Moreover, such an approach completely ignores the role of imagination and theorizing a hypothesis. Many great discoveries in history were made by those who imagined a particular idea and proceeded to test it, and not vice versa. Either way, Bacon provides a unique picture of rigorous academic research and induction.

Classification of Knowledge

Not only did Bacon have strong ideas about how knowledge should be collected, he also held strong ideas about how existing knowledge must be classified for optimum benefit to human learning. In his expanded version of the Advancement of Learning (De Dignitate), he proposed a threefold classification of knowledge: History, Poesy (poetry) and Philosophy. These three disciplines represent memory, imagination and reason respectively. He believed that these three disciplines would lead to true advancement, and that the importance of philosophy must be greatly elevated in order for academics to truly progress. As a scientific thinker, he denounced and greatly looked down upon the humanist subjects, namely literature and history. To him, history was a mere collection of facts and poesy was an expressive device; it was philosophy that had to take center stage.

Other Works:

However, Bacon did publish a great number of works that were not, at the surface level, of a philosophical nature. Some of his historical and biographical works include the History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh and a subsequent volume about Henry the Eighth. These were a product of Bacon’s prolonged involvement in British political life as a statesman. He also authored “A Natural History in Ten Centuries” or “Sylva Sylvarum”. This was a work divided into ten parts (each roughly designed to represent one century) and each part was divided into an impressive one hundred subparts. In this work, Bacon covered anything and everything that caught his attention, from bodily processes to geographical phenomena by chronicling experiments and observations as well as penning down his own personal thoughts on this varied range of subjects. His science fiction novel, “The New Atlantis” was published only after his death. It tells the story of a group of researchers in Salomon’s House (a research institution) who conduct experiments and attempt to gather knowledge.

These academic endeavors are seen to culminate in inventions which are both useful and practical for society, and will ultimately be shared with the world. While it is not a “literary work” in the truest sense of the term, it provides a valuable insight into Bacon’s vision for what true academia must aim to accomplish. Bacon did not end up publishing a “Magnum Opus” work, but his work Magna Instauratio or the Great Instauration was in progress, and parts of it were published after his death. He decided back in 1592 that he would devote himself to the field of learning, and restructuring and even “rehabilitating” it. The Magna Instauratio was visualized by Bacon to be an all-encompassing work, consisting of his views on learning to logic to science. Bacon’s wide body of work was created in an astonishingly short period of time, reflecting his genius. His contributions to learning and classification of knowledge, and his dedication to the same is highly commendable.

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